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A question of stiles: rural ingenuity or hazardous obstacle?

Andrew McCloy
By Andrew McCloy
6 minute read

They come in all shapes and sizes and few walks in the British countryside can avoid them. Often historic and frequently inventive, they are as much a part of our rural landscape as the drystone wall or hillside fence they often sit in. But do we give stiles the attention they deserve?

We'll all be familiar with those crossing points between fields or land holdings that have existed ever since livestock needed to be contained or land ownership defined, a process accelerated in England by the 18th-century Enclosure movement. Almost certainly, we've also cursed stiles at one time or another. That slender or rickety combination of wooden planks ready to deposit you face down in the bog; an overlooked strand of wire lying in wait for your expensive down jacket; or a stone squeeze stile seemingly designed to thwart the passage of a fully laden rucksack. But hang on a minute – there's more to them than meets the eye.

Traditional squeeze stile in the Peak District
Traditional squeeze stile in the Peak District
Stile at Ardtaraig Argyll Bute by Quintin Lake
Stile at Ardtaraig Argyll Bute by Quintin Lake

An overview of stiles

Let's start with the basics. Stiles (from the Anglo Saxon stigel meaning a set of steps for getting over a barrier) generally fall into one of two categories: those you climb over and those you walk through. (There's also another covering mechanical versions, but let's not get too geeky just yet.)

The 'overs' include the ubiquitous wooden step-stile with rails and posts; or stone steps abutting a wall. Ladder stiles in particular can be of considerable size and height, especially where they are part of a perimeter fence or wall preventing the 7-foot leap of a deer.

'Throughs' are a particular feature of northern England and its extensive network of drystone walls (known as 'Derbyshire hedges' in my part of the world). The familiar wall gaps are variously called squeeze stiles, squeezers, wedge stiles or vee stiles; plus there are zigzag stiles where upright stones or pillars form a barrier that humans but not large animals can negotiate.

On moorland in particular, look out for small holes left at the bottom of walls for sheep to pass through, variously known as lunky, cripple, creep or hogg holes. In days gone by wallers also added even smaller openings to trap rabbits or hares, known as smoot holes, or occasionally to allow water to flow through without damaging the wall.

Inventive designs

Where it gets seriously exciting for stile aficionados (and believe me it does) is when you come across an unusual design. These are often home-made affairs reflecting the ingenuity of a particular landowner or farmer. Some of the more elaborate historic metal designs date from the 1850s, when you could order them ready-made from estate catalogues. Older still are the so-called grid stiles that you can still find embedded in paths dotted around the parishes of west Cornwall, which were the forerunner of modern cattle grids.

There is no end to the variations of over-stiles and through-stiles once you begin to look around the countryside. Before long you will find yourself admiring well-made kissing gates or pondering over regional variations in farm gate patterns (five bar, diagonal brace – must be Cumbrian); and just wait till you come across a top-opening wooden stile with a lifting bar! Some of these so-called clapper stiles are surprisingly old and also have distinctive local names such as falling stiles, tumbling stiles and even ladies' stiles. Interesting, huh?

A counter view

Not everyone shares this positive world view of stiles. Indeed, it's one thing to admire the design or workmanship of a stile, but quite another when you have to heave yourself across it fully laden at the end of a long, hard day's walk, especially when the step is wet and slippery.

Although the highway authority (usually a county council in England) has responsibility for looking after public paths, it's the landowner who is responsible for maintaining stiles and gates. To help, there's even a British Standard for Gaps, Gates and Stiles (BS 5709). Either way, it seems that in many instances of cutbacks in public spending has led to the steady deterioration of stiles over the last few years.

Sometimes, though, it's the sheer number of stiles on the path ahead that's the problem, especially for heavily-laden backpackers. In the early years of the Offa's Dyke National Trail (late 1960s/early 70s) walkers had to contend with over 900 stiles along its 177 miles (285 km) - in other words, a stile every 346 yards or 0.3km! There were numerous complaints from aching walkers, so that over the years more and more stiles were quietly removed or replaced. Now there are fewer than 250 left on the entire trail. In 2015, the last of the Yorkshire Wolds Way's original 120 stiles was removed, making it the first stile-free national trail in England and Wales (the Thames Path followed soon after).

Meanwhile, across the national parks of England and Wales, there's an initiative called 'Miles Without Stiles' which aims to improve access for people of all abilities. Stiles have been replaced by gates and now there dozens of routes identified as suitable for wheelchairs, buggies and those with mobility issues. This is vital for improving accessibility in the outdoors.

Pulpit stile Scotland by Mark Squires (@LakesStiles)
Pulpit stile Scotland by Mark Squires (@LakesStiles)

The right balance

Just as we try and keep our balance as we cross a stile, so we must make sure that we don't lose too many historic or noteworthy stiles in our laudable aim of improving access for all. Happily, though, there are still plenty of stiles to go round – and plenty of people evidently appreciate them.

It may be a response to lockdown, when many of us began noticing the little things during our local walks, or possibly a yearning for local distinctiveness and a richer outdoor experience. Just as there are baggers for hills and mountains, people also share photos of rural post boxes, signs, benches – and stiles.

Over the last couple of years a veritable stile community has sprung up on Twitter, sharing photos of the most weird and wonderful stiles from around the UK and beyond. It culminated in the Stile World Cup where over 120 stile fans tweeted photos during a series of knockout rounds using Twitter polls (#StileCup).

Ultimately it is a celebration of the outdoors and sharing what we find there with others, a pleasure no doubt heightened over the last 18 months of confinement and social dislocation. And in the end, it's a pleasure as simple as the humble stile itself.

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